More than 2,100 fans packed the Cominco Arena on Saturday for the Trail Smoke Eaters final push for a playoff berth in the BCHL Interior division. However, the Vernon Vipers had other plans and proved too much for the home team, defeating the Smokies 7-2 to put an end to the season for the orange and black.
Vipers forward Liam Finlay netted a hat trick, including the winning goal midway through the first period, as the Vipers scored three power-play goals and took a 4-1 first-period lead to extinguish the Smoke Eaters playoff hopes.
“I think the moment got the better of us a little bit,” said Smoke Eater coach Curtis Toneff. “Their power play was clicking and our penalty kill wasn’t, and special teams can be the difference and it was the difference in the first period. It’s tough to climb out of a 4-1 deficit after one.”
Trail sat one point back of the Vipers and Merritt Centennials in the BCHL’s Interior division going into the game, so a Smokies win coupled with a Centennials loss to the Wenatchee Wild would have propelled Trail into the postseason. Neither scenario played out as Merritt beat the Wild 4-3 and the Snakes topped the Smokies. The Vipers and Cents ended up tied with 51 points, but Vernon advanced by virtue of one more win, 24, than Merritt’s 23.
“Both Merritt and Trail, we’ve been in a dogfight all year for that final playoff spot,” said Vernon coach Mark Ferner. “And fortunately for us we came up with the right effort at the right time.”
Bennett Morrison opened the scoring with a screen shot from the point, one minute and 16 seconds after the puck drop. But the Vipers exploded for four straight with Jimmy Lambert tying it at 7:41, and Liam Finlay’s back-to-back goals giving the Snakes a 3-1 lead, before Odeen Tufto batted his own rebound by Trail goalie Bailey MacBurnie to make it 4-1 with under five to play in period one. The Vipers extended the lead to 6-1 on goals from Colton McCarthy and Nicholas Rasovic in the second period, in what was an unexpected but welcomed result for the Viper coach.
“It really was (surprising), the way it started, down 1-0, and our guys they kind of woke up,” said Ferner. “We have a hockey team that when we play a certain way we can play well. You know they’re kids, they have to believe it, they have to trust it, and I think the most important thing is you have to have success when you do those things.”
The Vipers suffered an 8-1 loss to the Wild the previous night to set up the potential one-game-takes-all match up on Saturday, and that drubbing helped keep this game in perspective for Ferner.
“We just tried to forget about it,” he said. “Shoot you’re 57 games into the regular season and it all comes down to one game. It’s unfortunate, Trail fought all year, and what we asked our boys too was just have some class. We wouldn’t want to be on the other side either, so you have to respect your opponent, you have to respect the game, and you know we had some really good efforts tonight.”
Finlay completed the hat trick at 6:15 in the third period, and Trail forward Kale Howarth rounded out the scoring with 5:35 to play as a deflated hometown crowd exited the storied rink.
Trail outshot Vernon 36-28 on the night but MacBurnie, who has been Trail’s MVP all year, allowed six goals on 20 shots, and was replaced by Linden Marshall after the second.
“He is the reason we are in that game to begin with,” said Toneff. “He was a bit dehydrated at the end, so I’m not sure he was 100 per cent before the game, but there were tip-ins and point shots through traffic, I mean those aren’t easy to stop. I don’t think it was on Bailey, but he might wanted to have one or two of them back for sure.”
Trail was five points out of a playoff spot two weeks ago when the team fired their head coach and GM. But the Smoke Eaters final playoff push was riveting as Trail knocked off Merritt, then beat the third-seed Salmon Arm Silverbacks in two thrilling one-goal games to draw within a point of the Vipers going into the final game of the season.
“We kind of felt the buzz around town, and I’ve never felt that buzz around here to be honest, playing and coaching,” said Toneff. “People were talking. I’ve never seen that many butts in the seats, it was awesome to see, and great to hear the chant. It just goes to show you that if the game matters, people will come.”
For Vernon, the playoff berth comes at the end of a season that was, at the best of times, a struggle. Still, Snakes forward and Trail native Riley Brandt says the victory over his former team was as sweet as they come and is looking forward to the first-round match up against the Penticton Vees.
“It’s unreal, no better feeling coming in here and getting the win,” said Brandt. “A lot of guys were nervous. Coming back to my home town I couldn’t even breathe on the way up here but it was great to get the victory.”
Trail finished the season with a 23-33-2-0 record for 48 points and, while the team ended up in sixth place in the Interior division, it was the most wins and points since 2012-13 when they missed a playoff berth by one point.
“We needed guys to step up a little more and kind of take the bull by the horns,” added Toneff. “A couple guys just didn’t quite bring as much as they had in prior games. But it wasn’t a lack of effort, it was maybe just a lack of bounces, we were pretty even on shots, we hit a couple posts, and they ended up scoring and we didn’t, and at the end of the day that’s how the cookie crumbles.”
Round one of the BCHL playoffs begins on Friday with number 1 seed Penticton hosting Vernon, and the West Kelowna Warriors facing off against the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in the Interior division playoffs.-